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Howard Mackey's trip to the top.


In 40 years of business, the Fairbanks entrepreneur's M & O Auto Parts has traveled the road from an out-of-the-way parts place to the automotive industry's Jobber-Machine Shop Operator of the Year.

WHEN HOWARD MACKEY opened the doors of a business that this year is celebrating its 40th year, customers had to travel a round-about route over dirt roads to reach it.

Travel that route they did. In 40 years, M & O Service Station grew from a small store offering gas, groceries and auto repairs to M & O Auto Parts Inc., a 14,000-square-foot store selling auto parts retail and wholesale and operating a nationally recognized machine shop.

Mackey, 64, is a whiz at dates, at least those with a personal involvement. He reels off the date the business opened--Feb. 1, 1949--as quickly as most folks do their birthdays. He continues with milestones in the history of the business:

* In 1951 M & O acquired the Nash automobile dealership in Fairbanks and put in a line of auto parts.

* In 1954 groceries were dropped and a showroom was added.

* In 1956 the machine shop was added and Mackey bought out partner Floyd Olson. Gasoline sales and auto repairs were dropped.

* In 1957 the Nash agency was sold, and the business turned exclusively to auto parts and machining.

* In 1959 a branch store was opened.

* In 1981 Mackey set up a 10-year plan to transfer ownership of the business to a group of five employees. Long-time employee Russel Wooden became corporation president.

Today, Mackey acts as a consultant for the business, also spelling managers as vacation relief during summer months. He spends winters in Palm Springs, Calif.

Mackey, not a tall man, sports white hair and natty clothes. He wears a gold chain necklace, complemented by a gold nugget watch band on one wrist and a gold nugget bracelet on the other. His smile comes readily.

Mackey is bullish on Fairbanks and proud of M & O's record during the slow economy the past few years. Though the volume of business is down from the spike it hit during pipeline construction years in the 1970s, the overall trend continues upward, and the number of employees has remained fairly steady at the main and branch stores.

"Fairbanks has always had its highs and lows," he says. "The survivors are those who understand and know that, and run their businesses based on that."

Mackey attributes M & O's success to its record of good service to customers. Many of the parts counter employees have been with the business for 15 years; others longer. "We have men who have been here many, many years," Mackey says. "Some were hired during the pipeline years." A large inventory, positive word-of-mouth advertising and the link between the machine shop and auto parts business are other factors Mackey believes helped to build a successful enterprise.

Last winter, Jobber Topics magazine named M & O and Mackey Jobber-Machine Shop Operator of the Year. The award was presented to Mackey at a national convention of the Automotive Service Industry Association in Chicago.

The Fairbanks firm was selected from among 1,400 nominations submitted by field representatives for 1,500 manufacturers of auto parts, equipment and tools. A panel judged the nominations based on success of the firm in the parts department and machine shop, overall appearance of both store and shop and quality of service offered.

Noting that the auto parts business has become competitive in Fairbanks over the years, Mackey chooses not to divulge figures on the volume of business. But he is open about his own history and views.

Raised in northern Minnesota, he moved to Alaska at the age of 19. The year was 1944, and construction of the Alaska Highway had just been completed. Nevertheless, getting here wasn't easy. Mackey's route took him by train from Minneapolis to Edmonton, Alberta. He then flew to Whitehorse, British Columbia, where he met his father who was working there. The Alaska Highway hadn't yet been opened for routine civilian travel, but Mackey's father was able to wrangle a bus pass for him, and he arrived in Fairbanks a few days later.

Even after 45 years, Mackey is not sure just what compelled him to head north, though the University of Alaska was part of the lure. He hadn't been interested in the courses offered at Minnesota colleges, he notes, but he did want to further his education.

"I just wanted to go (north)," he said. "It rapidly became a home and that was that." Eventually, his parents followed him to Fairbanks.

In fact, he purchased the land where M & O remains today from his father. He and friends poured a cement slab in 1948 and prefabbed the walls over the winter. Over the years, additions have increased the facility's size to 14,000 square feet. The original wood framing has been replaced by cinder block construction.

In 1944, Mackey landed a job in Fairbanks as a clerk in the men's department at the Northern Commercial Co. store and enrolled in accounting classes. Though he never did attend college as a full-time student, he learned enough accounting that he soon was doing bookkeeping for the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, and later for Sourdough Express. Several summers, he worked in the payroll office for Morrison-Knudsen at its construction projects in Galena.

Mackey never married. He says after the business was opened in 1949, "I just devoted my life to it."

He did find time to lead the Golden Days Parade during Fairbanks' annual summer festival for 17 years, driving a 1925 Chrysler touring car. In the early 1960s, he was one of about six Fairbanksans who formed Fairbanks' Antique Car Club. He still owns the Chrysler, plus a 1938 Packard Club sedan he keeps in Palm Springs, where he is active in the local antique car club.

Winters, he volunteers his time at a senior citizens center in Palm Springs, including helping seniors to prepare their income tax returns. He walks, swims and plays tennis. Summers, he enjoys the life at his home on Harding Lake, a 45-minute drive from Fairbanks, or stays at his condo in town if he's going to the office daily.

Hanging framed on the wall at the office is the first M & O check for a delivery of gasoline, dated July 14, 1949. Photos of M & O's building over the years--including one taken during the Fairbanks flood of 1967--also have a place of honor.

Would he start in business in Fairbanks today? "Yes," Mackey says, nodding his head vigorously. "This is the only place I would do it. If you have a product or service that's needed, you can do it here."

COPYRIGHT 1989 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:M & O Auto Parts
Author:Mattson, Sue
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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